A sometimes-brooding but always sympathetic novel, by prize-winning British writer O’Farrell, of a family’s struggles to overlook the many reasons why they should avoid each other’s glances and phone calls.
Hot town, summer in the city. As anyone who’s seen Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing will recall, all it takes is a little fire, and a city will turn into a frying pan. So it is in the London of 1976: “For ten days now the heat has passed 90ºF. There has been no rain—not for days, not for weeks, not for months.” This does not keep Gretta Riordan, dutiful and uncomplaining, from rising early to bake soda bread. Desiccated Irish transplant Robert Riordan, though, takes a look at his suburban life, wife and family and makes his way to cooler and greener pastures without them. Has the heat addled his brain? Is he doing the only sensible thing possible? When his children converge to suss out what Da has done, they have no answers. Meanwhile, all of them are on the run from themselves: Michael, a schoolteacher, has a wife who’s taken to sheltering herself in the attic, away from her own children. Monica, the favorite (“Not even her subsequent divorce—which caused seismic shockwaves for her parents—was enough to topple her from prime position.”), is on the edge of a scream at any given minute. The baby, Aoife (pronounced “precisely between both ‘Ava’ and ‘Eva’ and ‘Eve,’ passing all three but never colliding with them”) has been off in New York, nursing a very strange secret. In other words, no one’s quite normal, which is exactly as it is with every family on Earth—only, in the case of the Riordans, a little more so. O’Farrell paints a knowing, affectionate, sometimes exasperated portrait of these beleaguered people, who are bound by love, if a sometimes-wary love, but torn apart by misunderstanding, just like all the rest of us.
A skillfully written novel of manners, with quiet domestic drama spiced with fine comic moments. The payoff is priceless, too.